As a composer and pianist, Fabian Almazan has no fear of epic grandeur, big statements or rich melodicism. He doesn’t limit himself to acoustic piano, or to traditional postbop tunesmithing either. As a bandleader, he hasn’t been as ubiquitous lately as he was a couple of years ago when he released his mighty Alcanza Suite, which is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s back out in front of his own trio this Friday night, March 1 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.
While there’s no telling which direction Almazan is going to go in next – he’s done everything from reinventing Shostakovich string quartets in a jazz context, to playing in starry space-jazz band Bryan & the Aardvarks – the Alcanza Suite is his magnum opus so far. There’s never been anything quite like it, a towering, symphonic masterpiece that draws equally on jazz and neoromanticism while tackling many sobering themes, from the trials facing immigrants to the bright of existentialism. The ensemble here rise to the many demands on their technique, a string quartet of Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello bolstered by Camila Meza on guitar and vocals, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums alongside the bandleader.
Meza sings calmly amidst the sudden gusts of the opening number, Vida Absurda y Bella (Absurd and Beautiful Life), Almazan’s piano a frenzy of climbs and spirals in tandem with Cole’s pummeling attack. Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous seems to be a reference point.
The second movement, Marea Baja (Low Tide) is a thoughtful nocturne, Meza’s tender vocal over wary strings, Almazan picking up the pace with his circling rivulets. As Meza moves further back in the mix, she grows more forceful. From there, Almazan’s carnivalesque chromatics enter and then give way to a big, hypnotically insistent crescendo.
Verla (Seeing It, “It”) being truth, begins as a tone poem and then becomes a moody, austere string quartet piece: this particular truth seems hard to bear. Almazan follows it with a brief solo piano passage that shifts from gentle lustre to disquiet; later on, Oh and Cole also get to contribute unaccompanied solos.
Meza returns to the mic for Mas, a fervent hope for better circumstances over airy, distantly blues-tinged atmospherics that builds toward towering angst with Almazan’s chromatic cascades.
Oh pounces and bubbles within the vast, catchy riffage of Tribu T9, Meza’s vocalese adding calm contrast to Almazan’s energetic two-handed polyrhythms.
Rising from somber belltones to emphatically spaced minimalist gravitas, Oh’s solo introduces the sixth movement, Cazador Antiguo (Ancient Hunter). Its stern, mechanical, martial drive and creepy helicopter effects juxtapose with Meza’s resolutely sailing vocals, segueing into Pater Familias. A coming-of-age narrative without words, it’s a return to the bright/shadowy dynamic between Meza and the rest of the band. Almazan cuts loose with his most gorgeously glittery solo of the entire record before a grim march returns, then gives way to a jubilant Meza coda.
Este Lugar (This Place) is the suite’s most epic segment, a lush, dynamically shifting maze of counterpoint, Meza giving voice to immigrant hopes and crushing realities: the return to the relentless march theme packs a wallop. Marea Alta (High Tide) is the suite’s towering coda, Meza’s guitar chords finally punching through the symphonic, polyrhythmic web. Whether you consider this classical music, minimalism or jazz, or all of the above, this album is pretty much unrivalled, in terms of both towering majesty and social relevance, over the last couple of years,.